Mysticism in the Life of the Church
The Catholic Church would not be the Catholic Church we know and love without authentic mysticism. Mysticism brings fire and passion to the faith. I have always said that the Catholic Church has a place for every single personality and temperament. For the more stoic, you’ve got your very intellectual Saints who can challenge and blow your mind like St. Thomas Aquinas, but for the more intuitive personality (the passionate lovers out there), the Church has the mystics: those who are madly in love with the Blessed Trinity, and through prayer, experience the incredibly deep things of God within the heart. Now this isn’t to say that the people like St. Thomas Aquinas can’t be mystical, or vice versa, but like St. Paul says, that there are varying gifts, but the same Spirit. This is why our 34 Doctors of the Church all have different doctorates, you could say. This blog in particular is going to speak about Mysticism in the life of the Church.
St. Paul makes in clear in 1 Corinthians 13, that without love, even the most extravagant faith leads to nothing. This can be seen in the lives of the great Saints of the Church, who came alive through their encounter with God dwelling within them. St. Iranaeus said that the “Glory of God is man fully alive”, and this only comes about through a deep love for God; in a relationship of love with Him.
As the great Doctor of the Church, and mystic herself, St. Teresa of Jesus (Avila) said, “God, save me from sullen faced Saints”. She knew that there was something more to being a Catholic, a Carmelite, and a human being, than simply understanding the truths of the faith without the fire of love found in being in a deep personal relationship with God. I think we can all relate with this in one way or another. For those who have been faithful for a while, you may be used to seeing people who put on the pious act, yet there is no joy to be found in them. Hopefully, you have encountered people who are the opposite of “sullen”; people who completely exude joy and peace that comes from prayer – in union with the heart of God.
Through our Baptism, we come to understand that not only are we cleansed of original sin, but God in the Person of the Holy Ghost overwhelms us through Baptism and original sin is vanquished never to return similar to an army overtaking over an enemy’s camp,. We now belong to God as His adopted children through the Sacrament of Baptism. At that moment, the Spirit of God comes to dwell within us bodily. We become a living “Temple of the Holy Ghost” as St. Paul tells us. For the true mystics throughout the history of the Catholic Church, we see that they understood this fundamental reality- that God dwelled within their souls.
I would like to discuss three mystical Saints in particular, and their spiritual impact on the universal Church to help convey my point.
St. Teresa of Jesus
St. Teresa in 16th Century Spain joined the Carmelites when she was 20. She had grown up with a very harsh and strict father. When she joined the Carmelites in Avila Spain, she began to live a relatively easy of life in comparison to her upbringing, as the Carmelites of her time had drifted from the original observance. At the age of 40, she found herself returning to a stricter prayer life, and in doing so, God began to draw her more deeply into mystical union with Him. She would have visions, levitate, and experience all types of spiritual favors. She however placed no real focus on these – she focused not on the gift, but the Giver. She would even have her sisters hold her down so she would not levitate. Everything she focused on was loving God personally, and paying no mind to the gestures of God in her spiritual life, minus being grateful for them. She remained faithful, and never wearied in her obedience to Christ, the Church, and her superiors, even when it meant great struggle for her. A great example of this is that at the advice of her spiritual director at the time, during the visions she received of Christ, she was told by her confessor to give Jesus the equivalent of the middle finger, known as The Fig. Apologizing the whole time to Jesus, she still did it. Jesus told her that he appreciated her obedience, and to remain doing it out of that obedience. St. Teresa truly sought a deep union with God, no matter the cost, but she knew that the only way to it was the obedience to Christ and the Church, and by remaining faithful in prayer.
What was the impact of St. Teresa’s intense prayer? It was the reform of herself and the Carmelite Order, which then spread to the Church and the world. Despite the haters among her fellow sisters, all the way up to the Papal Nuncio who denounced her work, she remained obedient to the calling she received to reform the Carmelites. Her spirituality spread throughout Spain and Europe. Convents opened which began to observe more faithfully the Rule of St. Albert and the reformed Constitutions. They observed the way of life that the original Carmelites lived . Women came from everywhere to enter into this life of radical simplicity and prayer. Her reform is now known as the Discalced Carmelites.
All of this was going on during the Protestant Reformation; that great divorce from the Body of Christ, which St. Teresa speaks about quite often about in her writings. The protestant revolt was a great burden on her heart. Nevertheless, in the midst of the chaos of the protestant reformation, St. Teresa rose up and fought for the holiness of life we all need. Her deep life of prayer led to action. In a time where Christianity was in great upheaval, when men like Martin Luther broke off in disobedience from the Church due to some of the sins of her members, and due to his own personal misunderstanding of the Church’s theology, St. Teresa of Jesus chose to live a life of passionate, intense prayer and service, in obedience to Christ, to Rome, and to her superiors. This action led to the bringing about of new life within the Church and from this reform, many Saints, mystics, and Doctors of the Church have arisen, including St. John of the Cross, and St. Therese of Lisieux. The life of St. Teresa of Jesus was spent with much suffering, both physical, emotional, and spiritual. Amidst the hardships that she had to endure, what gave her the strength to carry on underneath such heavy crosses and betrayals? It was God Himself dwelling in her soul, of which she had an indissoluble unity with; a passionate deep love between the Lover and the beloved, that gave her the strength to carry on.
St. Margaret Mary Alacoque
St. Margaret Mary Alacoque grew up in France in the late 17th Century. From a young age, she had a deep love for Jesus in the Most Blessed Sacrament. In her early life, there were signs that she would become a mystic later on in life, including her performing of acts of mortification shortly after her first communion at the age of nine. After being cured of a five year-long rheumatic fever immediately following making a vow to the Blessed Virgin to join the religious life, she began to have visions of our Blessed Lord. Later on, Jesus began to remind her of her secret vow, and at the age of 24, she entered the Visitation Convent at Paray-le-Monial on 25 May 1671, intending to become a consecrated nun.
After completing her profession in 1672, Jesus again returned to her in visions during prayer, but this time, his messages to her were much different. On December 27, 1673, Jesus began to reveal to her the desire for His heart to be honoured. He called her to begin spreading the devotion to His most Sacred Heart. He taught her about the devotion that was to become known as the Nine Fridays and the Holy Hour, and asked that the feast of the Sacred Heart be established. Similiar to the lives of other great mystical Saints, many on the outside were skeptical, especially the clergy of her day. It was not until Claude de La Colombiere (later to also be named a Saint) showed up on the scene that people finally gave credence to her revelations. It was shortly thereafter that her community finally ended their opposition towards her and her visions. In 1683, Mother Melin was elected Superior and named Margaret Mary as her assistant. St. Margaret later became Novice Mistress, and later taught the convent to observe the feast of the Sacred Heart privately beginning in 1686. Two years later, a chapel was built at the Paray-le-Monial to honor the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
St. Margaret Mary persevered in her prayer life, and remaining faithful to Christ and the Church, the devotion to the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus exploded across the globe. One cannot travel anywhere in the Catholic world and find where this devotion is not present in some form. Go to Mexico, and the Image of Jesus’ Sacred Heart is spray painted on walls and billboards. Statues of the Sacred Heart can be found in almost every Catholic giftshop. The devotion to the sweet and most merciful Heart of Jesus is everywhere.
Where did this all come from? The devotion to the Sacred Heart blossomed from the time that St. Margaret Mary would take to sit and pray to Christ, especially in the Most Blessed Sacrament. It was in this deep personal time of mental prayer that God in the person of Jesus Christ, revealed His most awesome and Sacred Heart to her; this heart which was pierced by a sword and poured forth blood and water for the salvation of the world; This heart which is all aflame with love for us. This was the heart that St. Margaret Mary encountered in prayer. It is this same Sacred heart that we too can come to know and fall in love with if we would only take the risk and pray from the heart also.
St. Catherine of Siena.
St. Catherine of Siena was born in 1347 in Siena Italy. Her father was a cloth dyer. She was the second oldest of 25 children. Catherine began to have visions of Christ at a very early age. She was approximately five or six, when she recounts that she experienced Jesus smiling at her, and upon giving her His blessing, she fell into a spiritual ecstasy. At the age of 7, she took a personal vow of chastity. Prayer was central in the life of this young girl. She joined the third order of Dominicans, known as the Tertiaries in her teens.
In 1366, she experienced what she would later call her “mystical marriage” to Jesus Christ. She received the Stigmata which are the visible wounds of Jesus Christ given to people by supernatural grace and she received communion from Christ Himself. But like the other aforementioned Saints, St. Catherine did not focus on her ” personal spirituality”; getting caught up in what she was experiencing, but instead she focussed on what she felt God was calling her to do, which was to lay down her life for others in service.
She, like St. Teresa of Jesus, was brought before her superiors and was interrogated to verify her authentic orthodoxy in 1374. She obviously passed with flying colors. She remained ever faithful to Christ and His Church. This led to her greatest work of all.
In the 1370’s, life was pretty turbulent in the Papal states. Because of the discord within the states, the Pope, Gregory XI, left Rome and took up residence in Avignon in southeast France. This weighed heavily upon the heart of St. Catherine. Like her Blessed Lord, whose heart she was being conformed to through authentic prayer, she desired unity among the faithful. She knew also that the Pope belonged where his throne resided, which is Rome. So, to start, she began to write in correspondence to the Pope, begging him to make peace with the Papal States and begging for a reform of the clergy. In June 1376, this small nun from Siena, a woman (keep in mind, the times were much less willing to listen to women), went to Avignon and begged the Pope to return to Rome. Pope Gregory, impressed by her plea, did in fact return to Rome in January of 1377.
After Pope Gregory XI’s death, Pope Urban VI summoned this little nun back to Rome to work in his court. Her vocation was to convince Cardinal’s and Nobles of the legitimacy of the papacy of Pope Urban VI, as there was still an anti-pope living in Avignon. She worked tirelessly in the work of unity, fighting tooth and nail the Western Schism which was going on during that time. The Lord, through prayer, gave little Catherine His paramount desire, “That they may be one…” (john 17) and she lived this out until she died at the young age of 33 in 1380.
Spiritual but not Religious?
In our current culture, we have a lot of people playing the “I’m spiritual but not religious” card. Though I affirm people in seeking spirituality, I believe there is a vast difference between that type of “spirituality”, and what I like to call “authentic spirituality”. I believe that one of the greatest figures in history that can be seen exemplifying my point is Martin Luther. In the case of Martin Luther, the Augustinian monk who defected from the Catholic Church in the 1500’s because of his disagreements with the practices of some of the wayward practices being performed by catholics at the time, we can see what happens when spirituality becomes overly individualistic. Individualistic spirituality can quickly go from faith to folly. We see this played out in his actions. In comparison to these three aforementioned great Saints and mystics, the very opposite effect occurred from his type of spirituality. The spirituality of the Saints led them to help bring unity to the Church and draw a great number of souls into deeper communion with the Blessed Trinity- a desire deeply rooted in the heart of God; the God who is One . In the life of Martin Luther, his lack of an authentic spirituality led to the great scattering of the sheep when he led a vast number of souls away from the One True Faith. One spirituality brings true peace, where the other brings discord.
A litmus test for authentic spirituality is this:
How is my relationship with God affecting the way I live?
Do I desire that my life be in conformity to His divine Will above all else?
Do my actions line up with the desires of Christ?
How do I deal with suffering?
Do I focus too much on the gifts God gives and not the Giver of those good gifts?
The Catechism of the Council of Trent says it best when speaking on the petition in the Lord’s Prayer Thy Will be Done, saying:
“But as there is nothing greater, nothing more exalted, as we have already said, than to serve God and live in obedience to His law and Commandments, what more desirable to a Christian than to walk in the ways of the Lord, to think nothing, to undertake nothing, at variance with His will?”
So the question is, what path are we going to take? Are we going to seek the path of union with the Will of God, and accept whatever befalls us OR are we going to embrace our own wills?
In conclusion, I quote Karl Rahner, a “theologian” of the 20th Century who said:
“In the coming age we must all become mystics or be nothing at all.”
Posted on June 9, 2012, in Apologetics, Bacon, Blessed Virgin Mary, Carmelites, Catholic, Eucharistic Spirituality, Evangelization, faith, Holy Spirit, Love, modesty, mysticism, Orthodoxy, Philosophy, Politics, prayer, Protestantism, Saints, Virtue and tagged authentic spirituality, Catholic Mysticism, Counter Reformation, Discalced Carmelites, Martin Luther, Protestant Reformation, Sacred Heart of Jesus, Spiritual but not religious, St. Catherine of Siena, St. John of the Cross, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Teresa of Jesus, St. Therese of Lisieux. Bookmark the permalink. 31 Comments.